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All Souls Procession: Lively celebration of all things dead

Unique procession began in 1990 as a small outpouring of grief and love

Tucson's annual All Souls Procession is a strange and fantastic event. It can be disturbingly grotesque and inspiringly beautiful. Awe, fear, sadness and joy all mix freely and publicly.

The All Souls Procession began in 1990 as a small outpouring of grief and love in the form of a performance piece by artist Susan Johnson. Based partly on Mexican traditions for Day of the Dead celebrations, it has evolved into a major public event. Despite what Chamber of Commerce types may prefer, it is Tucson's most unique and defining cultural activity; more than 20,000 people attend each year.

The most emotionally complex public event you will find in America.

It is also the most emotionally complex public event you will find in America. The All Souls Procession is a weird mix of celebration, tomfoolery, mourning, elaborate costumes, unadorned sorrow, pagan ritual and spiritual affirmation. Attitudes range from "I spit in Death's eye" bravado to profound humility. It is a moment of very human solidarity in the face of our terrifying and inevitable individual reality.

The traditions of the procession are also deeply freedom-loving, with a tinge of anarchy. Its organizers, the non-profit group Many Mouths One Stomach, refer to it as a "grassroots, non-commercial, hyper-inclusive, sacred event." There are no fees, restrictions, or regulations, though there are suggested "do's and don'ts" (i.e. do be respectful and enjoy in your own way; don't show up drunk/high or make people feel uncomfortable around you.) Costumes are encouraged and many demonstrate exquisite imaginations.

The 21st annual All Souls Procession will be held Sunday. As usual, the procession starts at the Epic Cafe on University Boulevard and Fourth Avenue at 6 pm. This year the route goes south down Fourth Ave through the underpass to Congress Street, where it heads west. It then proceeds north on Stone Avenue to Toole Avenue. The grand finale, a fiery spectacle in itself, will be held this year at the southeast corner of Stone and Toole.

Organized groups, floats and musical bands planning to participate in the procession are asked to register at 5 p.m. at the northwest corner of University and Fourth.

People in street clothes or costume can freely join the procession as it passes by and drop out as they wish. Divisions between participants and spectators are blurred. People of any age, race, or denomination are welcome, because the significance of our religious, cultural and political differences are diminished in Death. This is especially true when you are wearing skeleton make-up.

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The finale at Stone and Toole includes a ceremonial burning of an urn in which people along the procession route are invited to place their hopes, offerings and wishes for the dead. The finale includes performances by the Silver Thread Trio, community spirit group Ensphere and drum ensemble Odaiko Sonora. Aerial acrobats/flame artists Flam Chen will close the ceremonies.

Afterwards, local favorites Calexico and friends will perform at a Dance of the Dead concert at the Rialto Theatre starting at 9 p.m. Tickets are $25 in advance.

Other events related to the procession include the deeply moving Procession of Little Angels. This version of the procession is geared towards families and small children. It will take place at Armory Park on Saturday. It begins with children's activities at 3 p.m. and Kids Finale Workshops at 5 p.m. The Procession of Little Angels itself starts at 6 p.m.

Also on Saturday, the Spoken Word Soul Poetry reading will be held from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m., also at Armory Park. This event includes five-minute open mic segments.

Both the Procession of the Little Angels and the Spoken Word Soul Poetry reading are free.

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Tom Willett/allsoulsprocession.org

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If you go

  • 21st Annual All Souls Procession, Sunday, Nov. 7.
  • Starting at 6 pm, the procession route goes south on Fourth Avenue, then west on Congress Street and finally north on Stone Avenue. Finale at the southeast corner of Stone and Toole Avenue.
  • Donations to support the All Souls Procession and related projects can be sent to Many Mouths One Stomach, P.O. Box 15, Tucson, AZ 85702.